I watched The Hurt Locker the week before last. A fine movie, expertly acted, directed, and written, and presented with the aura of verisimilitude that makes people wonder if all movies aren’t just improvised on set or recorded from life by cameramen hiding in the bushes.
The Hurt Locker is built on a series of a half-dozen of the most suspenseful scenes I’ve ever seen. It’s a movie about people who disarm bombs in Iraq, and in these scenes, the bomb-of-the-moment could explode at any second and wipe our slate of protagonists clean.
The filmmakers fight dirty to create this suspense, but we deserve it. Their tactics are what we get for basing our expectations of what might happen next based not on what’s in the story, but on what we know about the business of modern film.
(Heads up. Critical spoilers follow.)
In the first scene of The Hurt Locker we have Guy Pearce, and we have two actors I’m not acquainted with. They’re going to detonate an IED that’s threatening some major street. A minor inconvenience turns into a moment where Guy Pearce’s character gets to prove that he’s a hero. And he does, but only for unexpected values of “hero.” The bomb blows up and he dies.
We go on to meet the real protagonist of the film—the Pearce character’s replacement in the explosive ordinance disposal unit—in the next scene.
Right, then—this will be a story where the A-list talent can die.
But even armed with that knowledge, Hollywood convention has such a pervasive grip that it’s somehow still a surprise when Ralph Fiennes turns up a bit later only to take a sniper round in the back in the very same scene, alive to dead in a split second without so much as a build-up of dramatic tension. Reminds you of the Steven Seagal character’s surprise death in (spoiler alert, I suppose) Executive Decision.
I want to be clear again that I think The Hurt Locker is expertly acted, directed, and written. The dramatic tension hangs on you like an x-ray tech’s lead apron, and it feels that way because a hundred people above and below the line made the movie like pros make movies.
But let’s not pretend that the tension arises 100% organically from within the story. Because when the Guy Pearce character flies into the air and the inside of his face mask turns red with a mist of his own blood, and then, in the next scene, you learn that that wasn’t just the set-up for his underdog, come-from-behind, wounded-vet-overcomes-obstacles story, but that Guy fucking Pearce is actually dead… well. If this is the kind of movie where that’s true, then clearly any of these guys who look like they might be in danger from, you know, bombs, must really be in danger.
It’s surprising when you think about it, but a sense of real danger to the protagonist isn’t something we deal with all that often in popular film. Imagine, if you will and for example, the depth of my concern that Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes will perish. It approaches zero. Your actual state of suspense in a Hollywood films usually arises from the meta-filmic game you’re playing with the film’s production company and distributor. (“We’ll kill him this time, we swear!” Yawn.)
Given, then: Factors outside a story can affect your experience of its drama.
Proposed, then: Factors outside a game can be manipulated to affect the experience of the players.
The clearest analog I can think of to the question of whether a protected species of characters in a film (those played by A-list actors) are in actual peril is the question of whether a protected species of characters in an RPG (those owned by players) are.
I’ve played in campaigns where PC death is both a foregone conclusion as well as a frequent experience. I lost beloved characters in those campaigns, and for some reason, the fact of knowing in advance that PCs’ lives were on the table didn’t cheapen my attachment to my characters.
I’ve also played in campaigns, and with groups of players, where PC survivability was an unwritten and completely inflexible rule. Even ill-conceived and bone-stupid PCs somehow survived their accidents of birth and parades of folly week after week and month after month.
I’ve had incalculable fun in both types of games, but the sense of dramatic tension in each was quite different. In the latter case, it must have been clear that no dramatic tension could have arisen from a sense of hope and fear regarding matters of life and death.
(And of course there are matters upon which hope and fear can rest other than death. Will we succeed in the mission? Will we find the magic sword? And so on. But in thinking back to the no-death campaigns, I also can’t remember real worry that some major plot question would simply be failed, either.)
A no-death RPG plays almost exactly the same game of meta-narrative chicken that your average Hollywood blockbuster does, but with the GM in the hot-seat from which satisfaction must eventually be dealt, and from where it so often fails to come. Because where a real sense of dramatic tension is the goal, the no-death GM is just as hamstrung as the director who knows he’s going to have to incorporate a raft of studios notes piled on top of a freighter of test screening data.
A real and present danger of PC death improves the roleplaying experience in the same way The Hurt Locker‘s warning shot makes its dramatic tension absolute.
So in the games you design, the scenarios you create, and the campaigns you run, have a deliberate think about the question of how far you’re willing to take the question of a protagonist’s ultimate sacrifice.
You might decide that the thing you’re designing, creating, or running is more a game than a story. That’s fine, especially if you understand how you’re limiting the thing, and why. But keep in mind that if your joint is primarily about the avatars running and stabbing and collecting experience points, you aren’t likely to be able to make serious emotional withdrawals from the story bank.
On the other hand, if you decide that your creation is primarily about the story, realize that the real value in a great story arises from dramatic tension, the hope and fear that arise in the reader or viewer or player’s mind. If you have the balls to make serious deposits, you’ll also be able to make momentous withdrawals, compounded with interest.